Greg LeMond likes to tell about when he began riding as a teenager with experienced racers. He could keep up with them and even drop them on hills. But in sprints they always beat him. They told him that because he was young, he could go first and get a head start! Greg finally figured out that far from doing him a favor,they were sitting on his wheel while he gave them an ideal leadout.
In a perfect situation, you’d sit about 4 riders back as the sprint approached. You’d pick the best sprinter and sit glued to his rear wheel. As he accelerated you’d stay there, sheltered from the wind while he did all the work, taking you to the head of the bunch with about 50-70 yards to go. Then you’d slingshot out of his draft and win by 3 lengths.
Well, it doesn’t always work that way. Other factors gum up the perfect scenario. Let’s look at some of the variables you’ll encounter in sprints and figure out how to overcome them.
Here’s What to Do
Don’t get dropped! Most sprints start some distance from the finish line. Rookie riders are often astonished at how fast the pack goes just setting up for the sprint. They think: “I don’t want to go hard now. If I do, I won’t have anything left for the finish.” But you have to stay with the leaders right up to the last 300 yards if you want to have a chance to win. So be ready to sprint several times just to maintain position.
Pick the right leadout. If you don’t have a team of willing domestiques leading you out, you’ll have to guess who might have the best wheel to follow. It can be hard to identify a sprinter by physical type. Many sprinters are relatively muscular, big riders, but occasionally a lean greyhound type has plenty of fast-twitch muscle fibers, too, hidden away in a climber’s body. As the race (or your competitive local training ride) progresses, observe the other riders and ask yourself several questions:
Who has been winning sprints? If you ride often with the same people, you have probably identified a couple of the fastest riders. Pick one and glue yourself to that rear wheel.
Who looks fast? If you don’t know the others, watch to see who accelerates easily away from corners and who makes you hurt on short hills.
Who has been suffering in recent miles? You can often discount a person’s sprint if he has been groveling for miles and barely hanging on. Even if he’s normally fast, maybe the hills, speed and distance have sucked the speed from his legs on this day.
Remember, though, that sprinting is a great opportunity to exhibit how the human race differs from other mammals — in our capacity for treachery. A fast finisher can feign exhaustion, suck wheels, and cry for mercy on all the hills. Then when you ignore him at the finish, he suddenly develops the legs of Mark Cavendish.
Who has been sucking wheels all day? Some sprinters always sit in the pack. They never pull, never put their noses in the wind. Their race-long objective is to save themselves for the sprint. If a break goes away early, they’ll never chase, trusting that the pack will come back together for a sprint finish.
That sort of behavior is accepted in a race, although it won’t win any friends – especially on a group training ride. If you suspect that someone is hanging at the back to save himself for the sprint, watch carefully in the last mile before the line. If he suddenly comes alive, moves up to the front 5 riders and begins to get that sprinter’s gleam in his eye, you know where your competition will come from.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred’s full bio.